“Tales from the Hoja”: Marionettes with a Message

Early this year, a small stack of 16mm film cans came down to the Motion Picture Preservation Lab for a condition assessment. They were wrapped in dirty cloth tape, and marked The Emperor’s ElephantWe were interested, thinking it might be a fun animated film. As we wound through the Kodachrome reels, we discovered beautifully detailed marionettes made by puppeteer Mary Chase.

306-ha-3-still-1

The Emperor’s Elephant (Local Identifier: 306-HA-3), like many films made for the United States Information Agency, tells a story that demonstrates why alliances are valuable. The film begins with a contemporary 1950s frame, showing three men in a Turkish coffee shop. One man, described by the narrator as a sheik, or local leader, and referred to by the honorific “Effendi,” smokes a hookah. A young radical named Hamid enters the coffee shop and complains bitterly about the alliances their government has made. The sheik launches into a story in order to show Hamid why his thinking is not correct.

Stills from The Emperor’s Elephant show the contemporary frame story.

In the Emperor’s Elephant, a war elephant belonging to the emperor Tamerlane terrorizes a village. After people are trampled, the villagers finally realize that, rather than hiding indoors, they need to band together to build barriers and protect themselves from the elephant. The central character in the tale is the Nasr-ed-din Hoja (typically Romanized as Nasreddin Hodja).

Stills from The Emperor’s Elephant.

After speaking with the archivist who sent them down, we learned there were 23 more Hoja titles in the series, made for the State Department between 1953 and 1958. All but two were made by Mary Chase Marionettes, all but one features a contemporary frame story, and all tell variations of Hodja fables.

The Hodja stories appear across the Middle East, into Eastern Europe, and in parts of China. The Nasreddin Hodja was said to have been born in Turkey and lived in the 13th Century, although there are other regional versions of the character, and more stories than could possibly be attributed to a single person. Many stories also take place in more recent times. For example, the emperor whose elephant terrorizes the Hodja’s village in our featured film ruled nearly a century after the death of historical figure Nasreddin Hodja. The Hodja stories convey basic wisdom and are seemingly infinitely adaptable to suit changing times, which is likely why they were fodder for the State Department films.

Bits and pieces of our Hoja series are easily recognizable stories, while some may have been adapted slightly to suit the intended message. The Emperor’s Elephant bears a close resemblance to Tamerlane’s Elephant, although in that version, the villagers head to the palace to complain about the elephant, but lose courage on the way, leaving the Hodja to air their grievances alone. With no one to back him up, he ends up praising the elephant and requesting that the emperor send a mate. Although there is a worse outcome, the message of the story can be interpreted similarly to The Emperor’s Elephant.

While in the lab, the Hoja titles were assessed for condition issues and digitized. You can now view all 24 films in our online catalog.

Notes on Sources:

So far, we have found very little documentation on these films at the National Archives. References to the history of the Hodja character and the various stories come primarily from the personal sites of academics:

-“Nasreddin Hodja: Tales of the Turkish Trickster,” compiled by folklorist D.L. Ashliman

-“This Reminds Me of a Story, 111 Teaching Stories of Nasreddin Hodja, the Wise Fool of the East,” compiled and re-told by pyschologist Ioan Tenner

For more on the puppeteer Mary Chase, see “Remembering Mary Chase Lombard,” by Tom Andrae, Puppetry Journal – Fall 2010 Volume 62, No. 1, available online.

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